How to keep on keeping on.

By David Ashworth

OK, here’s the problem in a nutshell. 

Two of my current freelance contracts involve me getting into secondary schools and discussing music-ed issues with teachers. These teachers tell me that in their feeder primaries, many students have Wider Opportunities [WCET] provision in year 4, some of this gets carried across to y5 and then music lessons disappear completely when serious SATs preparation kicks in during y6. The net result? Very, very few kids coming up to secondary school with much in the way of musical skills and knowledge. Some cannot even remember the name of the instrument they played back in y4! And the number of incoming instrumentalists is diminishing year on year. Yes, I know there will be exceptions, but I’ve heard this tale often enough now for me to be able to see this as a major problem.
Seeing the problem is easy enough. Finding workable solutions is tougher, so I’m grateful to those secondary music teachers who have shared these ideas with me. Here, in brief, are some successful approaches teachers have taken to address this issue. I’m not including too much specific detail, because I’m sure that teachers reading this will want to take the basic principles and adapt them for their own circumstances.
First of all, secondary heads of music realised that this is a problem that is not going to sort itself out. Unless they themselves take remedial action, instrumental uptake will continue to dwindle and the school’s flagship ensembles will disappear. So they look for ways to ‘bridge the gap’ between the music making that goes on in y 4/5 and y7.
They arrange an initial meeting with heads from feeder primaries and local music hub reps. They ascertain exactly what is going on, musically speaking, in terms of whole class instrumental provision. They set up appropriate extra curricular ensembles [on the secondary site] open to all y 4/5/6 and y7 players. Primary schools and hubs help promote this provision.
Young players are keen to take advantage of these exciting new musical opportunities at their local ‘big school’. The head of music does not try to do everything. Parents, retired musicians, y10-13 students are all drafted in as volunteers to help run and support these sessions.
These sessions are not just about rehearsing repertoire. An annual calendar of events in the community provides students with an added incentive and an important social dimension to their work.
The net result? It seems to be working! Instrumental numbers are on the up. Pupils keep up the lessons in y7 [with the peris they had in primary, where possible]. There is much more of a buzz about music in the schools generally, with a steady stream of younger recruits feeding into the senior ensembles.
Reproduced by kind permission of David Ashworth.
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Expecting to Fly.

By David Ashworth.

In my blog “After the Goldrush – did we miss a trick?” I told my story of hanging around in a typical school art department, and how I liked the things I saw happening there. At the end of my article, I asked the question: why couldn’t music departments be more like this?

In this blog, I will briefly sketch out the reasons why it is that music lessons are not like art lessons, and why I feel this to be a bad thing. I will then try to paint a picture of what music departments could and should look like, and why we might have little to lose my moving in this direction.

It is worrying and depressing that we still have so many young adults who look back on their experiences of classroom music in less than favourable ways. “Dull, boring, irrelevant” are the words we hear. Why is this so often the case? Put simply, I think it is largely to do with the constraints music teachers feel they have to work under. GCSE and A level teachers have to spend much of their time on the statutory element of analysis of music using criteria from the Western classical canon. Nothing wrong with this in itself, except that it leaves precious little time for anything else. This is not likely to change. The Ofqual tail continues to wag the music curriculum dog.  Watch this lively interchange from Music Education Expo and you will see what I mean.

And it’s not just GCSE/A level lessons that suffer. Many teachers will feel under pressure to compromise their KS3 offer as ‘preparation’ for KS4/5 study. Can this be justified, given how few students actually go on to take music at KS4/5? On this recent TES chart showing A level uptake across subjects, music does not even appear! ‪  

The GCSE/A level music ‘world’ takes place in an artificial and ever diminishing space. A sealed bubble which is set to burst. An enclave which is hopelessly out of touch, with the rich and vibrant musical world that surrounds it.  Consider this… Most of those who take A level music do so in order to progress to higher study. Most of these will eventually find work in preparing others to take this exam – or they will be involved in assessing them. They will be music teachers, ITE course leaders, inspectors, exam providers and resource writers. As Neil Young would say:

gotta get away from this day-to-day running around, Everybody knows this is nowhere.

This is wrong for so many reasons, the main one being that music students are being seriously shortchanged. We have opportunities to provide rich, life enhancing and often life changing musical experiences, but we allow powerful people who understand nothing about music education to dictate and compromise what we do.  We should be listening less to the people with power, and more to those people with powerful ideas.  If our curricula and specifications were more like those enjoyed by our colleagues in art departments, we could transform the ways in which we teach music.

If music teachers were to elect to climb off this treadmill, what might their music departments look like? What would they look like if they were more like art departments? Well, art departments are given considerably more freedom in what they can do. Their brief is to help students:

development of personal work and lines of enquiry determined by the need to explore an idea, convey an experience or respond to a theme or issue.

And they do this in the way that professional artists do:

Explicit evidence of the relationship between process and outcome presented in such forms as sketchbooks, visual diaries, design sheets, design proposals, preparatory studies, annotated sheets and experimentation with materials, working methods and techniques.

And they make authentic connections with contemporary art culture by:

Critical and contextual work that could include visual and annotated journals, reviews, reflections and evaluations, documentation of a visit to a museum/gallery or experience of working with an artist in residence or in other work-related contexts.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our music students had similar briefs – and what might these look like in practice? Of course, in this scenario students would all be doing different things, exploring their chosen lines of enquiry.  Let’s imagine what this might look like for one hypothetical student….

Student A is a keen musician who also has interests in environmental issues. He comes across the work of Leah Barclay via a documentary exploring the value of creativity in environmental crisis. Leah is an Australian interdisciplinary artist, creative producer, composer and researcher who specialises in electroacoustic music, sound art and acoustic ecology. He researches the work that Leah has done, reads about her working methods, listens to some of her music and finds out more about how her work is funded and disseminated. His teacher advises him on the technology equipment and skills he will require to work in this way and helps him formulate a plan for working on a project, along similar lines to Barclay’s, in his locality. 

This is exciting and liberating for student A, but it does pose challenges for the music teacher, who also has students B through to Z to consider. Currently the music teacher has a responsibility to transmit cultural knowledge - but what knowledge and whose? This is the problem we are grappling with in this blog. The teacher need to keep these responsibilities whilst also taking on the role of facilitator as suggested by John Finney:

Thus, teacher as cultural mediator as complementing teacher as facilitator is of interest, a distinction that I hope is worth thinking about.

This proposed realignment of music education will not be easy and will require some fundamental shifts for schools, music teachers, their students and all those involved in supporting music education in various ways.  But this is a music education that would be worth fighting for.

Reproduced from the Youth Music website by kind permission of David Ashworth.

Teach Yourself Piano

How To Learn in Your Own Time
Andrea D. Vacchiano

So you have decided to learn to play the piano. As do many adult learners, you may be considering some way to teach yourself piano instead of taking private lessons. Self-study is a truly viable option today. Various methods and materials designed for motivated learners are becoming more and more available through online and other resources, and they have never been better. This article presents a few ideas for your consideration while you select a method for self-study.

To pursue your studies, you will need regular access to a piano or keyboard. Most programmes and methods will assume that you will have a full eighty-eight key piano, with a realistic touch and at least a sustain pedal. You will also be purchasing a series of course materials and method books. Expect to spend about £50 - £100 for quality materials. You should also have a metronome. Depending on the nature of your self-study programme, you will probably want a CD player, DVD player or a computer set up somewhere close your practice area.   Your first task will be navigating through the myriad different methods and formats available to help you teach yourself piano. Take the time to find one that suits your goals and learning style. Remember to consider the basic style of music you are interested in. For example, you may wish to study classical music, jazz improvisation, or simply be able to play a few popular songs for your enjoyment. You should be able to find a programme to match those interests. As you make your list of the many possible study paths available to you, take advantage of any free lesson offerings you will undoubtedly come across. An introductory lesson or two will give you a good sense of a programme's focus, style of presentation, and pacing.   You will find many sources for study methods, courses, sheet music, and supplementary materials. One of the most easily accessible sources now is, of course, the Internet. In addition to paid and free study programmes, you will find several repositories of sheet music dedicated to famous composers or particular styles.
Try not to limit yourself to just online resources, but look into your local services as well. Your local public library will probably have a sheet music section complemented by a collection of method books and recordings. Colleges and universities may allow the public to browse and even borrow their music faculty library's collections. A trip to your local music shop will give you the opportunity to browse materials as well.

Once you have selected a method or programme to teach yourself the piano, set up a realistic weekly practice schedule. Four or five fifteen-minute sessions per week are a good starting place. In the beginning, the organisation of the lessons will help you figure out what you need to practise and how to do that. As you progress, you may find that you need to expand your practice time to up to about a half hour or so per session.

Remember to take the time to enjoy music away from the instrument. You can augment your practice by actively listening to recordings, attending concerts, and even finding a few fellow piano students to enjoy a bit of social time with. If you can get up the courage, it is extremely rewarding to play for other students at a similar level to you, as well as hear what they are working on. If you enjoy reading, find a few books on famous composers or music history. The author Charles Rosen has written several knowledgeable books on classical music for musicians.

As you continue your self-study, think of your musical development in long-term goals. The piano takes time to learn. You will probably find a fairly steep learning curve during your first few lessons as you digest its information, style, and work out a practice routine for yourself. To start with, assess your progress after about every three months of study. Look back to your first lesson, and think about what you have accomplished. If you have a solid programme and are able to practice regularly, you may be surprised at how much progress you have made.
If you would like more help with all aspects of learning the piano you can visit Andrea’s website where you can get a free copy of her latest eBook about playing the piano -

Practising Is Boring so I’m Banning It!

By Ian Chalk

“Sorry I can’t come with you to the park and play footy….I have to stay in and practise my trumpet”. And the spiral towards hating and eventually giving up playing the best instrument in the world begins…

Practising anything is dull. It’s repetitive and tedious and no one enjoys it… so I’m banning my students from doing it. There may be some of you out there thinking “But I love working my way through Arban pages 28 to 36! It solidifies my technique, gives me a sense of achievement, cleans up my articulation. I LOVE to practise!!”. No, you don’t. You don’t love to practise. You think you do…but you don’t.
What you love to do is PLAY. ‘Playing’ is great fun…the best thing to do in the world! Everyone loves to play: without the joy of playing, Sony would never have created the PlayStation.
I think this is what gets lost when people are developing their competence on their chosen instrument. There’s a reason why you don’t ‘work’ a trumpet; you ‘play’ it….it’s supposed to be FUN! I think playing is fun whether on a gig, in a rehearsal room or on your own. I think playing is fun whether you’re doing it perfectly or it’s riddled with errors. Too often, I have had conversations with parents where they map out their child’s journey to Grade 8 success like it’s some kind of musical Holy Grail. You can see the fear in the child’s eyes, almost hear them saying “what if I don’t achieve it before going to university? I’ll have failed my parents!”. The stress and worry begins, it all becomes far too important and progress slows.
What’s music for anyway? I’ll wager that the majority of music in the history of mankind was created to give people something to dance to… a fun activity or at the very least something to be enjoyed. Let’s not lose that sense of enjoyment through the fear of failure to achieve.
Please don’t misunderstand me; I’m not saying that playing at home or in rehearsal shouldn’t have a goal. Of course it should. The goal can be as technical as you want (‘I want to play this section at 130bpm using only single tonguing’) or as emotional as you want (‘I want to express my feelings about the dichotomy of the human condition through the medium of free improvisation using my tenor horn’)… it’s all good. Having goals in your playing makes us all better players and improving on your instrument leads to a greater sense of achievement and self-esteem. This leads on to more recognition, more gigs and more enjoyment.
We all have reasons why we play our instruments (including paying the bills) but let’s not forget the main one: because it’s fun to play.

This article first appeared on is reproduced here by kind permission of the author.

Beginners’ Piano Lessons

What you need to know

By Andrea D. Vacchiano

If you are thinking about starting piano lessons for the first time, you may be wondering what to expect in your lessons. The first few piano lessons, regardless if they are in a traditional private lesson, a group piano class, or even a method of self-study, usually focus on a few simple concepts and exercises to get the absolutely new piano player started.

You will first learn about some of the essential parts of the piano: the keyboard or manual, the strings, the soundboard, and the pedals, and how these parts work together. The keyboard consists of eighty-eight keys that sound from left to right the instrument's lowest note to its highest one. When a key is pressed, a hammer strikes one or more strings that are strung tightly across a brass harp inside the piano's body. A soundboard amplifies the sound of the vibrating string producing the tone that we hear. When a key is released, felt dampeners stop the strings from sounding. The piano's three foot-pedals affect the sound of the instrument in different ways. The most frequently used pedal is the right-most one called the sustain pedal. The sustain pedal inhibits the dampeners from stopping the vibrating strings until the pedal is released.

Now that you have some basic understanding of the piano's workings, you will then probably spend some time learning how to sit at the piano, and how to place your hands on the keys. These two lessons are extremely important, especially for adult students. Piano players need to learn a sitting position and hand position that efficiently allows them access to all the keys, as well as not put any undue strain on their body.

The acoustic piano, unlike an electronic keyboard, actually takes quite a bit of strength and flexibility to play. Professional classical pianists share much in common with athletes: fine motor skills, highly trained muscles, and the ability for a great deal of concentration. Like athletes, if pianists over practice or use incorrect technique, they risk injury.

Once you learn how to sit and place your hands, you usually learn the fingering system, and the middle C hand position. Middle C refers to the note and piano key that is literally in the middle of the keyboard. The fingers of both hands are simply numbered from one through five starting with the thumb. You will also learn some rudimentary music theory in the first or second lesson, typically the musical alphabet and how it relates to the repeating pattern of black and white keys of the keyboard.

Students learn to play their first notes with an emphasis on producing a clear tone, while moving the fingers of the two hands in parallel and contrary motion. You also begin learning to read music at this point, with an introduction to the piano staff, simple rhythms, and how they relate to the middle C hand position.

Once you understand these basics, you will learn about other hand positions, and will probably begin to play simple songs or pieces. It is at this point different methodologies, learning curves, and repertoire will be introduced. Which direction your piano lessons will take will depend on your needs and desires, as well as those methods that the instructor favors.

If we are learning classical piano, your lessons will focus on learning pieces and studies from different style periods at a graduated level of difficulty. Lessons will be complimented with the study of technical exercises such as scales, and possibly even more music theory.

If you are studying popular musical styles, you will begin to learn some written out arrangements of familiar tunes, as well as how to build and play different chords, common chord progressions, and typical song forms. Jazz piano lessons will add in the dimension of improvisation techniques.

If you would like more help with all aspects of learning the piano you can visit Andrea’s website where you can get a free copy of her latest eBook about playing the piano - <a href=""></a>

or read this article and more on her blog - <a href="">Beginners Piano Lessons</a>